Getting Kids to Learn-Or Else!

Getting Kids to Learn-Or Else!

Administrators are juggling budget concerns with future test results as they choose textbooks and other materials for their classrooms.

Assessment, assessment, assessment. That seems to be the driving force behind many of the curriculum purchase decisions being made in districts across the country, as schools try to meet the requirements set forth by the federal government. The No Child Left Behind act is causing districts to scramble to provide texts that meet the law's research-based requirement (see sidebar) and set in motion the process of assessment and testing that will bring them into compliance with the standards.

Districts are having to get creative with the ways they obtain these materials, as funding dries up and the need for assessment materials increases. District Administration talked with the publishers, district professionals in charge of purchasing materials, and independent consultants to see exactly where district money is going, and where these experts think mistakes are being made.

READING is Fundamental

How a subject is taught is just as important as what gets taught, says Alfred Arth, professor of education at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The concentration on standards-based education and the drive to assess at every step of the educational path could be doing students a disservice by restricting the ways in which subjects are taught, says Arth, also the coordinator of the university's Middle Level Education program.

Teachers need to find ways to reach and teach their students, especially in the middle grades. According to Arth, districts are not buying like they used to. "Teaching materials are driven by testing materials," he says, and schools are evaluated based on testable moments.

As a result, districts are making fewer exploratory purchases, since they have to spend their money acquiring standards-based materials. And that's a shame, he says. When teachers can't experiment, "curriculum changes are not necessarily happening at the building level since so much of what teachers need to teach and test restricts experimentation." The feedback loop gets jammed, and instead of teachers having input into the curriculum, they are teaching what they must. Teachers have to have input into what the curriculum will be or they won't be able to teach it as effectively, according to Arth.

One way districts are getting both the materials they need and the student-specific materials that meet the federal criteria is through innovations in custom publishing. When the San Francisco Unified School District asked publisher Curriculum Associates if it could provide a take-home version of its Comprehensive Assessment of Reading Strategies book in Spanish, Chinese and English, the initial response was no.

It quickly changed to, "Why not?" Cathryn Harvey, the company's vice president of marketing and sales, saw the potential of custom materials. The take-home booklets the company created dovetailed neatly with the NCLB requirement of involving the families in the promotion of reading skills. The booklets were based on the publishers existing books, which allow teachers and parents to evaluate what essential reading strategies students know and which ones they need to work on.

Publishing companies are getting creative, too, as funds for purchasing their wares becomes even more hard-won. Custom publishing could be a way to tap into funds from different district budget streams. Curriculum Associates hopes to do more customization as a way to broaden its appeal and become the go-to publisher for standards-based materials produced quickly and economically. The next challenge, says Harvey, is going to be the federally mandated need to measure adequate yearly progress of students. "That is going to be huge in the years to come," she says, because "we know that kids present lots of different speeds of learning." How that requirement gets met necessitates creative thinking from everyone involved.

Do the MATH

One of the many sweeping changes No Child Left Behind brought is that reading and math texts have to be research-based. Those that aren't have to be replaced, so districts are scrambling to be compliant. With budgets under fire in every district, some districts have to replace books that they purchased as recently as last year, since without the research-based books the fear is that test scores will suffer. And there seems to be little confidence that there is a material difference between the textbook just dumped and the textbook just purchased, since the definition of "research-based" is so broad.

"Teaching materials are driven by testing materials." -Alfred Arth, professor, University of Nebraska at Lincoln

There's a definite trend in developing and buying standards-based books, says Francie Alexander, vice president and chief academic officer at Scholastic. Her job is to make sure that all Scholastic materials reflect their subject's research base and that they follow "good practice."

At the primary grade level, money is spent on basal textbooks, books that set up and reflect the standards that the kids will be tested on. For upper grades, the materials being purchased are more varied, but no less standards-based. At every level, "as the stakes increase, people are looking to publishers to provide assessment tools," Alexander says. This lets the teacher know as soon as possible that there is a deficiency in a child's understanding that needs to be addressed, rather than having to wait until the end-of-the-year test to find out that a student is failing. Finding out sooner rather than later where the child needs to work harder to meet the standards gives the teacher time to bring that student along.

Alexander also sees an increase in the amount of supplemental services money being spent on programs like afterschool programs, Saturday schools and other beyond-the-bell activities. Beyond-the-bell is expected to be beyond-the-basal; the thinking being that if you're going to provide extra instruction for kids who are struggling in class, then you'd better present something they aren't getting in class.

The other challenge in buying materials is providing multi-level texts for kids of the same age and class who are reading at widely divergent levels. "You have to meet the kids where they are," she says, by having texts that are accessible to them, whether that means in another language or at a different reading level. Dealing with a wide span of learners necessitates providing a range of materials so that every student can meet the assessment standards.

Of course, the need is not merely for textbooks. Money for math manipulatives, calculators and other equipment has to be found somewhere, as well as for teaching the teachers how to use and administrate the new standards testing. In many cases, there just isn't enough money to go around, so the top priority-materials that teach what the children need to know for the assessment tests-gets the district dollars first.

Up-and-Coming SCIENCE

Curriculum in Florida, as in every other state, follows the education standards set by the state. But in Florida, high-stakes testing is taking hold ahead of the NCLB requirements. That is driving what materials the districts are purchasing.

For example, districts have to provide materials that specifically address the Sunshine State standards, says Richard Mancini, assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction in the Santa Rosa School District in Milton, Fla. These standards emphasize inquiry-based education, higher-order thinking skills and hands-on learning. The kids have to know and demonstrate their science ability, not just regurgitate facts.

"It's not an easy time to be a district administrator." -Frannie Alexander, Scholastic

The Florida Comprehensive Academic Test will be used to test science statewide for the first time this year, so benchmarks are being set that the schools will then have to meet and beat. Florida schools will be graded based on the FCAT scores.

To say this is "high-stakes testing" would be putting it mildly. Mancini, too, has a declining budget and increasing expectations of what his office can provide. "Every textbook salesperson that comes into my office, the first words out of their mouth are that their product addresses the state standards." But do they? Textbook producers are scrambling to make their materials standards compliant and get on the "state adopted" list, but from the initial scrutiny by the state Department of Education's teams, it is impossible to tell whether a text will meet a particular district's needs. "The level and depth of alignment [with the standards] is the issue," says Mancini. "I accept on good faith that the effort was made to do a first evaluation," but it is up to the district to decide to what extent a text meets the standards, and meets their needs.

Buying books that students can share isn't the answer to the budget crunch, either. According to Mancini, parents still have the misconception that their child isn't getting a quality education if each student doesn't have a textbook, so getting creative with having fewer books doesn't always fly.

Whither SOCIAL STUDIES?

With the economy tanking and state budgets being cut, social studies texts are in danger of dropping off the budget entirely. Instead of being angry about this, Peggy Altoff, board member of the National Council for the Social Studies, is looking ahead to see where smart purchases now will save money in the future.

In this age of instant media, textbooks need to be replaced often, especially textbooks that should reflect the political and cultural reality of the nation. But books can't be produced that fast, and districts can't possibly afford to purchase new books every time the political winds change. "Textbooks are exceedingly expensive," says Altoff, who is also district coordinator for District 11 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

This makes the decision to purchase new ones that much more critical. When textbooks are purchased, the choice has to be in alignment with state standards-textbook companies know this, and provide state-standard material. But for which state? Most textbooks are written for the largest adopters (California and Texas) but sold everywhere else as well. So the choice of which book is appropriate in a state that is not California or Texas requires careful consideration.

Ancillary materials make a difference. They can be much more extensive than they were even 10 years ago. It used to be that you got a textbook that included a teacher's edition and maybe some transparencies. Now texts are packaged with chapter tests, tutorials, and summaries; second-language versions of the testing materials; scheduling books; pictures, transparencies, and other visuals; and suggested strategies for how to read the text. Teachers look for and appreciate these materials because it makes their job easier. Altoff looks for both diligence in preparation of the materials, as well as bells and whistles that force the kids to think about what they get. In trying to look beyond the "more is better" mentality, she hopes to provide texts and materials that will serve her district well for the five- to seven-year lifespan of the book's usefulness.

Altoff feels fortunate that her district lived up to its promise to spend money on new social studies textbooks this year-it could easily have turned out otherwise. As state funding for schools is cut, says Altoff, districts are going to be hard pressed to meet federal standards, and federal money isn't going to bridge the gap. Social studies, because it does not fall under the current assessment rubric, is liable to experience the cuts most keenly in the future. And the money pinch is "only going to get worse as funds go to math and reading because that's where the assessment testing takes place," Altoff says with a sigh.

The Importance of Teachers

At the most fundamental level, curriculum purchases are not going to make the difference between a successful student and a failing one. That is up to the teacher. Materials aimed at bringing the teachers up to a higher level of professional development are still very much in demand, says Alexander at Scholastic, and districts are investing in their teachers.

At its most fundamental level, curriculum purchasing "should be seen as simply teacher/student support," says Mancini. Studies have shown over and over, says Altoff, "students with the best teachers are the students who score best on the tests." This is reflected by the stipulations in No Child Left Behind that teachers should be "highly qualified." High-quality teachers create the best students, irrespective of the materials they use to teach. This is not to say that a teacher's job can not be made more effective with good materials; only that there is no curricular substitute for a good teacher.

Elizabeth Crane, ecrane@mail.well.com, is a contributing editor.


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